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Saturday, June 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New life, old murder: Ex-radical Emily Harris faces charges 19 years after release from prison

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — As a young FBI agent in the mid-1970s, James Botting spent 18 months looking for Emily Harris and her fugitive band of Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) terrorists. He kept her wanted poster in his briefcase and her face — bright, blue-eyed, imperious — ever present in his mind.

Twenty-five years later, when it no longer mattered, he found her.

By that time, Botting had left the FBI and become head of security for MGM Studios in Santa Monica. There, he was stunned to discover Harris working for the studio under a new name as a highly paid, highly respected computer programmer.

The face hadn't changed, Botting noticed. Just about everything else had.

No longer a fugitive, no longer an avatar of armed revolution, Emily Montague — the name she had taken after she was released from prison in 1983 — was a quiet, middle-age, middle-class computer consultant with a six-figure salary and a comfortable home.

She had paid a debt to the society she once battled: more than seven years behind bars for kidnapping, robbery, auto theft and other charges. She now had a dog, a sensible wardrobe, a loving family, a long list of charitable activities. Divorced from Bill Harris, she had a long-term, committed relationship with another woman.

Once considered one of the country's most dangerous criminals, she was now, by all outward appearances, a pillar of the community.

Paralyzed by professional propriety, Botting couldn't bring himself to approach her.

"I would have loved to sit down and just talk to Emily off the record, but neither one of us could do that," said Botting, who since has left MGM.

In January, Harris was arrested on murder charges. She, her ex-husband and three other people associated with the SLA are accused of shooting to death a bystander during a 1975 bank robbery in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb. She is free on $1 million bail pending a trial next year.

The case has brought on stage, for one more encore, the most operatic and violent of the radical groups to emerge from the leftist antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Melding black ex-convicts with white, college-educated radicals, the SLA preached a "symbiosis" of races that would throw off the "puritan capitalist ethics of competition, individualism, fascism, racism, sexism and imperialism."

And so, out of the shadows has emerged Emily Harris, SLA code name Yolanda, who at 55 might be settling into a comfortable middle age, were she not accused of pulling the trigger on Myrna Lee Opsahl.

It was a blast that did not echo loudly at the time. Initially, it seemed another random act of violence, and wasn't publicly linked to the SLA. Even after the group was blamed, the Opsahl murder never achieved the Day-Glo celebrity of the SLA's signature acts of mayhem, which included the assassination of Oakland schools chief Marcus Foster, the kidnapping of publishing heiress Patricia Hearst, and an apocalyptic shootout with Los Angeles police in which six SLA "soldiers" died with their hideout in flames.

No charges brought for years

No one had been charged with the murder. Prosecutors at the time said they simply lacked evidence. One SLA associate, Steven Soliah, was charged with the robbery, but he was acquitted, seemingly ending any likelihood that anyone would be held accountable for Opsahl's death.

That seemed true even after Hearst wrote her 1982 memoir, "Every Secret Thing." It dramatically described Hearst's kidnapping and conversion to the SLA's cause, but also detailed the Carmichael robbery.

In a passage that came to haunt Myrna Opsahl's family, Hearst wrote that after the holdup, Emily Harris admitted she had shot a woman.

"It doesn't really matter," Hearst quoted her as saying. "She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor."

Harris denies taking part in the robbery, much less killing Opsahl, much less bragging about it. "Unequivocally, I was not involved," she said in 1999.

Harris gave that interview not long after the arrest in Minnesota of Steven Soliah's sister, Kathy Soliah, who had been living for years as a fugitive under the name Sara Jane Olson. She was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, trying to bomb two Los Angeles Police Department squad cars for the SLA.

Friends said Harris knew Olson's arrest could lead prosecutors to reopen the Opsahl murder case. That Harris did not flee, despite having the opportunity and means to do so, shows how much she has changed, these supporters say.

Her parents and lifelong friends say she has become again the person they knew as a child. Smart, sensible, well-adjusted; nobody's rebel.

Her lawyer, Stuart Hanlon, refers to her, with apologies, as "a sorority girl," something she was when she attended the University of Indiana.

Few people, even among her closest friends, can answer the two questions that seem central to understanding Emily Harris: What turned an All-American sorority girl into a violent revolutionary? And what turned her back into Emily Montague?

Friends recall Harris as apolitical until midway through college, around the time she met a garrulous, politically engaged Vietnam veteran named Bill Harris, moving with him from Indiana to Berkeley.

"They began feeling there was no way to change the world but to get violent," Hanlon said.

One key to understanding why they became violent, Hanlon and others believe, is that the SLA was, almost from the outset, an underground organization cut off from society and the rest of the radical left.

"A group of people get closed off from the world, believe only themselves, talk only to themselves and start to believe it," Hanlon said.

Barbara Shoup, a novelist who has been friends with Harris since college and wrote a book partially based on Harris' life, thinks the strength of her personality made her susceptible to political extremism. "When I run that all through my mind, the only thing that makes sense to me is my knowledge of her as a person who does everything she does 100 percent. So once she entered that world, she would enter it fully."

Harris was sentenced in 1976 and again in 1978 for crimes that included the Hearst kidnapping. The woman who was sent to prison was defiant, arrogant and very much a revolutionary.

But something happened to Harris during her prison years.

"I think she grew tremendously," Shoup said. "She thought about all those things and reflected on them. And the voice of her letters changed. The earlier letters were more strident, they spoke more about politics, and the later letters — I recognized her voice. It was the voice of my friend."

Harris was released at a perfect time to begin a career in computers. She was hired by Unisys in Los Angeles, and after two years moved to Walt Disney in Burbank.

In 1994, Harris began a consulting business. Her clients have included Paramount Pictures, MGM Studios and Spelling Productions. Business has dried up since her arrest, Hanlon said.

At the same time she was establishing her business, Harris was making new friends. She had come out as a lesbian in prison, Hanlon said, and her social life reflected that change. She rode a bicycle from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a charity AIDS ride and was involved in Habitat for Humanity, the Revlon Breast Cancer Walk and Living Free, an organization that rescues stray dogs and cats.

She built, by many standards, an exemplary résumé.

"She is a kind and loving person and has many friends who love her," wrote Carol Baca, the mother of Emily's partner, in a letter to the court. "She is a wonderful asset to her friends, family, community and neighborhood. She deserves all good things."

There are people who take strong exception to that.

Jon Opsahl pushed authorities for years to find and prosecute his mother's killer.

"What purpose would it serve for her to be convicted and put in prison?" Opsahl asked. "The purpose is this little thing called justice. We have a moral obligation to society to hold killers accountable. Even after 27 years."

The case against her largely rests on whether a jury will believe Hearst. Hanlon argues that the new evidence claimed by prosecutors is neither new nor significant. The Sacramento district attorney's office declined to comment.

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